You’ll have probably read enough overview-porn on this, so I’ll confine myself to some blips on my own personal radar. The copy-cat behaviour, spreading beyond London, fascinates me. I wonder what the mix is in each area between the two elements copied - one about young men physically and spatially confronting the authority of police in the streets, the other (involving all sexes) about looting and destroying local and chain-store shops.
For the first, it surely involves a few strands. There’ll be some legitimate grievance from some ethnic minorities about stop-and-search and racial profiling - the unresolved legacies of decades of structural deprivation, the control levels probably increasing after the domestic terrorism of 7/7.
But that also cross-fertilises with the desperate solidarities of gang society - sometimes racially, sometimes geographically defined, engaging young men at a psychologically-susceptible moment in their development, and amplified by its own specific pop culture in music and media. Politicians might encourage us to downgrade this, but I don’t want to underestimate the power of the Tottenham police’s killing of Mark Duggan as a cultural meme - easily inflaming other street-battling, gang-oriented youth in different parts of the country.
The looting and arson is, to me, a lot more complex. I’m partial to the academics pulled together by the Guardian’s Zoe Williams on Tuesday, who noted that the young looters weren’t exactly storming shops for basic staples - the food riots that were the early tremors of the Arab Spring for example - but for goods that confer status in consumer society (phones, tv, clothes).
The late-night shots of male and female hoodies sashaying down the street with JD Sports and Debenhams bags was like some surreal parody of a Saturday afternoon’s “retail therapy”. Which is, of course, our official compensation for securing and holding down jobs in a service economy.
Most of the commentary you’ll read will be about how we piece back together a “work ethic” for a now “feral” youth: a generation who, in an age of free downloads and welfare mollycoddling, have lost all sense that consumer gratification should come well after one's respectable efforts in the labour-market.
Let me just, for a moment, flip it round. These kids aren't rioting for the right to a job in traditional sectors threatened by neo-liberalism (we don't need to bother about that these days, of course, as globalisation has relocated industrial production in the South).
No, this generation is cursed with semiotic plenitude. They have been super-conditioned by all kinds of powerful media and branding to think they live in a world sprinkled with stardust. A world where self-expression and recognition, not just through the medium of art (X-Factor) but via the basic interactions of their lives (Big Brother), is what essentially matters.
If you don’t have the talent (and few do, and even those who do soon realise how tough it is to make it), then you have to buy into the lifestyle that at least evokes such stardom. When you realise you are always going to fall far short of the spending power to live that lifestyle, that’s a recipe for permanent, corrosive dissatisfaction. What’s different compared to the seventies is the explosion of media - meaning the explosion of ways to get a tantalising, frustrating taste of the consumer identity you know you’ll never quite possess.
Our headlines about youth in recent years have been about the calamitous rise in their mental disorders, as much as their delinquency or failures of character. Might not the compelling, multi-sensory surround of lifestyle consumerism be to some degree the cause of those disorders? And might not that psychological fragility contribute to the corroded characters of those English youth, thinking they can turn their high-streets into glass-strewn fields of excess?
How do these kids get out of this bedazzling trap? My 2004 book The Play Ethic suggested one response to the shower of visions of the good and creative life that a multimedia society generates, without it providing an equal socio-economic opportunity to realise them (certainly not under New Labour's empty management of neo-liberalism, and even less under the Coalition's sado-austerity).
My proposal was that we systemically and infrastructurally expand the zone within which people could express themselves in an unalienated way, through freely-chosen and satisfying arts, crafts, trades and lifestyles. This would be supported by a new social contract, involving shorter working hours and a radical reinvestment in public structures and amenities.
My new thesis ties that collective, playful zone to the biggest crisis that we all face - the need to move away from hyper-consumerism under the terminal threat of climate change. I’m suggesting that a playful lifestyle will enable us to replace status consumption with joyous co-production, and also lighten our load on the planet.
The classic retort has been that this is an unaffordable, indulgent luxury. I’m a fool to presume that our human nature is naturally social and convivial; and I’m incapable of addressing fundamental questions about prosperity and economy. Alright then: On the brink of a double-dip recession, with the Western world up to its eyeballs in debt of all kinds, and with financial plutocrats dumping the costs of their mendacity on the populace - can anyone out there say that the the traditional production-consumption model has served us all that fabulously well?
At the moment, given the parade of revolting, hypocritical harrumphing from millionaires and Bullingdon types in the Westminster regime (and a timorous opposition), I have no hope that any of these ideas will even be audible at a UK level. So before I go back to peering at my Kindle, a few words on what is (so far) an interesting anomaly: Why no consumer riots in Scotland?
Well, we do have rather regular consumer riots, at least in Glasgow. They’re called Old Firm games. These are policed in a generally acceptable way - and enteprisingly, some of those collective resentments are turned into solid retail and merchandising revenues. The only errant elements are: the occasional attempts to bouncy-bouncy Glasgow’s Underground train off its tracks; some outbursts of domestic or street violence in and around fixtures, fatalities only occasional; and more recently, a problem around the psychic compensations of 19th century migrant labour-history for bored-shitless-with-themselves West of Scotland males. (Yes, look up there: the red irony light is ON).
But I also couldn’t help noticing a classic Scottish social indicator, sneaking into view as London roiled and burned. It seems that we are still the leading European nation for drug deaths; slightly down on last year, but still seven times the continental average. I walked through Sauchiehall Street today - the equivalent of Manchester’s Arndale or Tottenham’s High Street - and felt weirdly safe among my fellow, trundling Glaswegians. The only impedance to one’s complacent, Salmondesque stroll? The regular piles of shrunken, junkie humanity at my feet, nodding off with a plastic cup in their laps, none of whom seemed remotely capable of conducting any kind of consumer riot amidst the retail saturnalia.
Maybe that enduring self-loathing and inferiorism of Scottish life - possibly more virulent in the 50% who didn’t vote in the last Holyrood election, than among those who did - has its pacific benefits, after all. The needle and the damage done keeps the more brittle portions of the Scottish poor quiet and manageable - that is, until Smart, Successful Scotland gets round to them, as something to tick off the progressive checklist. Onwards, and sideways.